August Challenge #4: The Spoken Word Challenge

In the fourth and final August challenge of 2020, Rian Paton challenges you to submit your best spoken word poems. There’s no theme – just send us new work that’s no longer than three minutes long.

Photo of red curtains on stage

The challenge: record a spoken word poem/s that is up to 3 minutes long.

Portrait of Robert Burns

I was first introduced to poetry through reading it aloud, from a primary school teacher who loved Robert Burns. We would have whole lessons dedicated to learning and reciting in traditional Scots, and he let us spend days pouring over these beautiful original texts just for fun at the end of each school year. This introduction gave way to my love of theatre and performing in later years of high school, my English teacher believing I had some kind of talent for reciting Shakespeare. Well, surprise, Miss, it’s my work I’m reading now.

What is spoken word?

It can be really difficult to say what is and isn’t a spoken word or performance poem. For the purposes of this challenge, I’m going to suggest a rough definition of spoken word – but remember that it’s difficult to pin down.

Let’s start with ancient history. Poetry has been spoken for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years old, and is linked to music and song. Our ancestors were creating spoken poems before written language even existed. People would memorise poems from hearing them, and pass them on by speaking them aloud. Oral poems were sometimes sung, and often used repetition to help people remember them.

Spoken word is a kind of modern version of oral poetry. It focuses on how words sound even more than written poetry. There’s often less (and sometimes no) focus on how a poem looks on the page. Spoken word performances are often, but not always, more theatrical than readings given by ‘page’ poets. Many spoken word poets have come up through performing at poetry nights and gigging in pubs, as opposed to submitting their poems to magazines and competitions. In recent history, spoken word in the UK is closely linked to leftist, revolutionary politics, and has associations with music (hip hop, blues and punk for example). By rejecting what schools and universities see as ‘proper’ poetry in favour of more immediately understandable and accessible performances, spoken word poets have opened up poetry spaces to many who otherwise would never have considered themselves to be poetry fans.

Book cover of Stage Invasion by Pete Bearder. The text is in yellow and the background is red and there's a black microphone in the centreBut the boundaries between ‘spoken word’ or ‘performance’ poetry and ‘page’ poetry are very blurred: spoken word poets publish books; and page poets focus on sound and performance too. For a fuller history of spoken word in the UK, check out the brilliant Stage Invasion by Pete Bearder.

Show, don’t tell

An important part of a spoken word poem is the emotional impact it has. Unless your audience follows you around from gig to gig, it’s likely that they will only hear your poem once, and even if they don’t remember the exact words you said, they will remember how you made them feel. So try to bring your audience into the performance – don’t push them away. Let them live with the story you are telling, and the feelings and thoughts you are expressing.

How do you do this?

Show, don’t tell.

Lots of people think spoken word is just getting on stage and telling the world about your problems. Nope. Just because spoken word isn’t necessarily written down doesn’t mean it’s not crafted. If you want to write a spoken word poem about heartbreak, don’t just say “When you left, my heart broke into a thousand pieces.” You’re just saying a cliché we’ve all heard before. It’s even less necessary for you to tell the audience what you’re feeling than in a ‘page’ poem, because the emotion should come through in your performance anyway. Instead, what images and metaphors can you use to show your audience how you feel?

Photo of a young man performing on stage, holding up his paper
SLAMbassador Eben Roddis. Photo: Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

Watch Rudy Francisco perform ‘Your God’. This is a poem about racism, different interpretations of the Bible, stereotypes, and social divisions in the United States. That’s a lot! But he doesn’t just say, “There are racists out there.” He doesn’t even say, “There are people out there who have racial slurs tattooed to their tongues just to make intolerance more comfortable in their mouths.” Rudy Francisco pivots the perspective in an unusual and interesting way. He says that’s what ‘your God’ does, and he uses the repeated structure of ‘I bet your God…’ to hit the audience with surprising image after surprising image.

If you’d like to write a spoken word poem like this, try this. Pick a topic, like climate crisis or bullying or sexism. Now write down all the images and actions you associate with that thing. Then find a different way of presenting those images. Will it be ‘your dad’ who says those sexist things, or will it be something even more surreal like ‘your body’ (‘your knee says… your foot does…’) or ‘one tree said to another tree…’? Use repetition and think carefully about order.

Watch Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s ‘British Values’ now. She also uses repetition in a lot of this poem: ‘Britain is… Britain is…’. Sometimes, it’s true, she tells us a fact (‘Britain is 1,600 dead in or after police custody since 1990’). But she intersperses these facts with some amazing images that turn ‘Britain’ into a person (‘Britain is praying in changing rooms. Britain has its feet in your sink’). These interesting images give the audience space to absorb the hard-hitting facts. Without them, the poem would just be a lecture.

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan also uses some brilliant wordplay and rhymes in this poem to turn known phrases and clichés on their head: ‘Britain is seeing it, saying it, sorting it – which means Britain is also deporting it’ and, ‘It’s funny that over-apologising is seen as a national trait, ‘cause half of history is still waiting.’

In this poem, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan takes an idea (‘British values’) that is often stereotyped, and shows how many contradictions and other perspectives exist within that idea. If you’d like to write after Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, pick something is wrongly stereotyped (this could be anything from ‘teenagers’ to ‘werewolves’… maybe the werewolf poem could secretly be about teenagers) and list all the surprising contradictions. Do some research. Throw some facts in there. Again, think about repetition and order. Pack an emotional punch!

The role of performance

Performance is part of a spoken word poem, in the same way that how a poem looks on the page is part of a page poem. Reading the lyrics of a song isn’t the same as listening to it – equally, some would say that a spoken word poem has to be performed to bring it to life. So when you’re writing your poem, you have to edit your performance, the same as you would edit your line-breaks in a page poem.

Watch Grim Jackson perform ‘No More Heroes’. What counts as ‘performance’ here? Is it just the way he speaks, his voice trembling and cracking at the emotional parts, how he stumbles over words? Is it his hand raised in the shape of a gun? Is it his accent? Is it the different volumes, how he starts off quiet and gets louder? Is it his make-up, the scar shape on his face? Is it his clothes? Is it how he stands? Is it all of these?

Now watch this video of Grim Jackson performing the same poem. What is different, and why? What is the same? Is it still the same poem?

When you’re crafting your spoken word poem, re-watch these videos (and others!) and ask yourself what techniques you’ll use in your performance to help your audience understand and feel your poem. Try out lots of different styles, record and watch yourself back, until it feels right.

The challenge

Perform a spoken word poem or poems that lasts no longer than three minutes. It can be about anything you want. You could write about injustice, your identity, your friends, a book you think you could’ve written better, or (a personal favourite of mine) your accent!

Just remember that the most effective spoken word comes from an emotional attachment to the subject, and writing from narratives that you are either part of, or that you have a connection to.

A few helpful hints

Sometimes it can be pretty hard to come up with ideas for poems. I know from personal experience that weeks can pass without any sort of inspiration and all of your work can seem boring. So here are some hints and tips I use myself to try and get myself thinking creatively.

  • Write a poem like a letter. Start with the same structure as you would a formal letter (“Dear …”). Will it be a complaint? Or a love letter? Watch Danez Smith’s poem ‘Dear White America’ for inspiration.
  • Pick a colour, word or object at the start of your day, then go out for a walk and make a note of everything you see in that colour, or every time you hear that word, or see that object, and use your notes to make a poem!
  • Explore something that’s personal and important to you that encapsulates part of your identity – my personal favourite subject is my accent.

When starting your work, don’t tie yourself down to one idea or feeling, let it flow and change, you don’t have just one personality trait and your poems shouldn’t either! My Foyle commended poem ‘Ode tae Masel’ started out being about my accent and turned into my relationship with my country and its identity!

SLAMbassador. Photo: Hayley Madden

But if some kind of structure would help, there are a few common structures in spoken word which might help you write into your subject:

Obviously there are lots more kinds of spoken word poems – that’s just a few common tropes! Your poem doesn’t have to follow any kind of structure at all, it just has to be no longer than three minutes.

That’s it! Submit a video of your spoken word poem and make this challenge yours!

Prizes

Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society’s YouTube, Vimeo and social media channels. Winners will be sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and other goodies.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged 25 and younger, based anywhere in the world. It’s free to enter and you can send as many poems as you like. The deadline is midnight, Monday 21 September 2020. For this challenge, please submit a video recording. Please send your file to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk using WeTransfer or Dropbox, or email us a link to a privately uploaded YouTube or Vimeo video. Do not submit videos which are published publicly on the internet, as these are ineligible. We prefer not to use Google Drive as it can be glitchy.

Send your poem(s) with the subject line ‘August challenge #4’. Please include your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and how you found out about this challenge (e.g. YPN email/Twitter/Instagram/through a teacher/through a friend etc.). This data is used for statistical purposes and help us reach as wide an audience as possible.

We accept entries in English and BSL; if you are submitting a BSL poem please send a written down version in English too. If your poem is in English, you can send the text of the poem as well if you like, but this is not required.

If you are aged 12 or younger on Monday 21 September 2020, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and groups. Use this class entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

Photo of Rian Paton

Rian Paton is a spoken word artist from Glasgow who is relatively new to the poetry scene, but can be found performing in a number of venues across Scotland. They were a Foyle commended poet in 2019, and you can find them on Instagram @paton_r_  

For more August challenges, check out Lydia Wei’s challenge about re-mixing historical figures in your poems, Meredith LeMaître’s challenge about fairy tales and poetry, and Ife Olatona’s challenge on repetition and imagery.

Published August 2020

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